Raza Mir’s latest book – Murder at the Mushaira is a unique juxtaposition of duty, morality, love and patriotism. By making the renowned poet Mirza Ghalib, the detective protagonist of the tale, Mir captures the attention of the readers from the very beginning. With the unfolding of the story, several characters are introduced, each having more layers of complexities than the other. When a murder takes place at Nawab Iftikhar’s Mushaira, various theories depicting the reason behind it begins to appear. It is surprising how a man has several reasons to be killed and yet most lead to a dead end. But this whirlwind journey of investigation leads Ghalib from the palaces of the elite to the alleyways of Old Delhi; from the house of the entertainers to the walls of the Fortress. Mir also retains the flavour of Ghalib’s poetry throughout by beginning each chapter with a couplet of his works, which sets the tune for the chapter without giving away any twists and turns.
To understand Murder at the Mushaira, it is necessary to revisit the Delhi of the 1850’s when the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar is towards the end of his ruling days. Seeking this opportunity the British East Indian company is planning to take over Delhi, the crux of Hindusthan. It is vigorously getting into pacts and treaties with other Indian Nawab’s and rulers and even stationing its armies across crucial barracks and checkpoints. Amidst this, grows the concern among a section of the society to preserve Hindusthan’s security and prevent it from falling in the hands of the notorious white men. This is further aggravated with one-off mutinies in various barracks, most famous of them all that of Mangal Pandey in Barrackpore. This being the broader scenario one cannot ignore the inter-personal relations between the Nawab’s themselves which are often shadowed by wealth, affairs, marriage etc. Moreover, several Nawabs had befriended the Englishmen in greed and become spies for the society. Amidst all this the male –female divide of the traditional society was prevalent along with class, caste and professionalism. Set in this backdrop Murder at the Mushaira explores all the above aspects through descriptions and actions to transport the reader to another era.
When Ghalib is summoned by the Kotwal to co-investigate the murder of Sukhan Khairabadi at the Mushaira he agrees to come on board. With the help of his friend, a scientist from Delhi University he quickly performs a routine scrutiny of the murder spot and the dead body- synonymous to modern day forensics and autopsy. This helps him chalk out a list of suspects from the men who attended the Mushaira and narrow down his investigation. When he chances upon unusual activities in the Zenana during one of his interrogation sessions, he starts taking a different approach to the case, one that leads to unimaginable secrets unfold in front of him, ultimately revealing the murderer. Ghalib is joined by an array of characters with vibrant personalities who all seem to have a truth to hide- Nawab Iftikhar, his wife Roshan Ara Begum and daughter Zainab with her friends Hyderi Begum and Ishrat, the haveli help; his friend and scientist Ramakrishna ; his acquaintance Ratna Bai and the mysterious Sarfaraz Laskar.
It is interesting to note that how a Mushaira, an artistic reverie can be transformed into a den of political activities. In the disguise of a poetic gathering, political and state information exchange hands through an innovative courier system. In fact, not only the Mushaira, the entire knowledge of art has been used as a political weapon to fight for Hindusthan. Humanities and Art has been seen as a weaker subject of the society. But only a few understand its real strength and symbolism and that has been acutely harnessed by the author to weave a complex web of actions and reactions throughout the novel. The story also compels the readers to think about the power bestowed within the Arts having the capability to make or mar civilizations, which has been underestimated by the community for decades. The novel speaks volumes about feminism in a conservative patriarchal and political society as some of the major characters are women. It is their actions that ultimately remove the veil from the mystery.
Murder at the Mushaira is not only a gripping tale of a complex murder but is also laden with emotions. It is a treat to visualise all the characters, their actions and their part in the novel. To see Ghalib in action as a sleuth is the real twist in the tale; of course he does have a side –kick as well, like all detectives. With a high dose of patriotism, nationalism, thrill, emotion, anguish, jealousy, Murder at the Mushaira is a liberating story of an era gone by with values that one can still hold on to today.
No. of Pages: 338
Rating: 3.75/ 5